The visionary: Tête-à-tête with Mulund’s first-ever football superstar!

Rolfred Coutinho (26) is the original poster boy for football in Mulund. Right from making waves in school games to winning a skills contest conducted by Manchester United…he has done it all. Football runs in the family as his father — Mr. Ronnie Coutinho (56) — was an ex-professional player who made a name for himself in the local and national football circuit. Though the younger Coutinho currently plays for Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in MDFA’s Super Division…he still dreams of playing for India!

In this freewheeling chat the alumnus of St. Pius High School (Mulund) gave insights as to how football can be used as a tool for societal change. He also doled out numerous ideas on creating a football (and sports) culture in India.

Here is the full excerpt of the interview:


How and when did you start playing football?
I started playing football at the age of four after being inspired by my father (Mr. Ronnie Coutinho) who was a professional footballer. He has rubbed shoulders with the best in the business and has played for a clutch of clubs in Mulund and Mumbai. I played my first school game at the age of six and scored my first ever goal at seven. That is when my parents realized that I have an inherent talent for football.

How did you miss out on a trip to the UK despite winning a skills contest?
I won the Mumbai as well as the All-India level of Manchester United’s skills contest. I finished with the highest points in a pool comprising of the best players from the country. I cleared all the skill-sets (read: juggling, scoring from different angles, passing into small goal-posts etc).

Though I was to travel and train at the Trafford Training Center (the training ground for future Manchester United superstars) I didn’t get a revert from the concerned officials. After much probing I realized that someone else had already been selected at my expense!  It (not being selected) gave me the incentive to work hard on my game.

Are such skill contests a marketing strategy for European clubs?
As for now they (Europe) know that India is not up to par even in Asian football. They would rather opt for players from Japan and Korea — nations which are powerhouses. Though I wouldn’t exactly term it as a marketing strategy still the onus is on our players to go out there and deliver. Though I missed out on a golden chance to travel and train in the UK still things are getting better. In the current scenario, talented Indian players have a fair chance of making it in European leagues. Proof is that of our U-16 and U-17 teams who have punched above their weight in international tournaments. The younger players are getting their due.

What was the role of your parents in your career?
My father played a lot of football during his younger days. In fact, he has been a pillar of support. Right from school to professional level, I’ve had the support of my parents. I’m thankful to my parents who allowed me to pursue a career in the sport.

How do we tackle the fact that Indian parents do not consider sports as a worthy career option?
I do agree that parents (in India) have this doubt that sports is not a viable career option. Of course, it becomes doubly reinforced in a city like Mumbai where it is difficult to survive thanks to financial stress. Every parent wants their child to succeed so they opt for careers which assure safety and security (read: MBA and Engineering).

Rolfred Coutinho strikes a pose at St.Pius’ football ground…the hallowed turf for Mulund-based footballers (PC: Vineet Varma)

Also in the 1990’s (and the earlier part of the 2000’s) football was not that lucrative a career in India. That has caused a mental block as parents still believe that a career in football would not give children the necessary financial safety (and status in society). But things are slowly changing as the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) has proved that a career in football is not something to be looked down upon.

How do we create a strong football (and sports) culture in India?
Every state in the country has a budget allocated by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). We need to set up a team (of 40-50 people) who can strategize and give solutions. They must go on regular overseas trips and observe what works (and not) in countries which boast of a strong football culture.

European clubs have started residential academies (in India) where kids can stay and pursue sport with education. That incidentally is the norm (in Europe) where the talented kids are picked up by professional football clubs once they turn 15 or 16. The real work has to be done at the grassroots. We need to scout kids who fall within the age range of 10-12.

Also, lots of academies have mushroomed in Mumbai — a sign of a growing football culture. These academies have reined in licensed coaches who train kids right from the age of 4 or 5. So, hopefully things are progressing in the right direction.

The class disparity for sports in India…
The class disparity will always exist. Look…even in Europe many players from not so well-to-do families have made it to the top-level thanks to a combination of talent and hard-work. Lionel Messi is a classic example. Argentina’s football system spotted his talent when he was aged 4 post which F.C Barcelona came calling.

The club sponsored treatment for his growth hormone disorder and later took him under their wings at the La Masia academy. The rest is history! Something similar can be done in India as well. The North-Eastern states have a lot of untapped talent.

We can create a team to provide a corpus of funds for talented kids from under-privileged backgrounds. The funds can be used to buy football material and kits for such kids. I’ve also observed players who have made it into national reckoning despite not having the necessary backing or support. They performed well at the U-16 level and made it big later on.

On St. Pius High School making a mark in Mumbai’s football circuit…
The school has played top-notch football since the last eight years. It won two titles in the first and second division leagues and also beat traditional powerhouses with regularity. The current team plays in the first-division.

Do schools (in Mumbai and India) need an influx of licensed coaches?
Earlier schools only had one football coach. But times have changed as people are now open to becoming full-time coaches. Carlton D’Souza sir (St. Pius’s football coach) completed his ‘B’ level coaching license and is doing a good job in the local football circuit. He is a beacon of hope for aspiring coaches.

Also, the sport has picked up in Powai and Navi Mumbai. The same applies to Borivali and Matunga. A football culture has seeped into the city. F.C. Barcelona has launched an academy in Matunga and South Mumbai. The system is becoming professional.

The menace of corruption…
I do agree that it exists. In the earlier days there used to be incidents when pressure was put in by political entities to select players who didn’t deserve to make the cut. If India has to make a mark in international football then the system has to be transparent. We need to have a vision which would propel India within touching distance of a top-40 spot in the FIFA rankings by 2026. The days (of political pressure and influence during team selections) are slowly but surely fading into oblivion. It is of paramount importance that deserving talent gets its due.